Santa Barbara News-Press, “Hidden Wings Lands A Home,” June 15, 2012

A New Home for Hidden Wings:

School helps young people with forms of autism.

By Nora K. Wallace, News Press Staff Writer

As it celebrates its second anniversary as a haven for young people with autism, “Hidden Wings” has landed a home in Solvang.

The school without walls in the Santa Ynez Valley was created by the Rev. James H. Billington Jr. and his wife, Dr. Julia Billington, as a place where young people with forms of autism who are moving from high school to adulthood can learn life skills and socialize in an accepting environment.

After two years without a solid base, the nonprofit program now has a home at 517 Atterdag Road in Solvang. An open house will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. today.

“We’ve had all the spokes, but we haven’t had a hub,” said the Rev. Billington.

Having a location in downtown Solvang will help socialize many of the eight to 15 students who participate in the tuition-free Hidden Wings curriculum, the Harvard graduate said.

“The effect is centering on them,” he said. “There’s the predictability of coming, with rooms designed to be modular so things can be moved around. The advantage of having it downtown, they get to be part of the real world.”

Kevin Hosseini, a student who has become a successful artist, painted canvases for the interior. A parent whose child attends programs did all the landscaping outside.

Also on display will be computers, since Google made Hidden Wings one of its “test sites” for its Project Spectrum three-dimensional modeling program called “SketchUp,” which is found to be appealing to people with autism.

The move was possible in large part due to a significant grant from venture capitalist William K. Bowes Jr. The Rev. Billington said Mr. Bowes believes Hidden Wings can be a model for other programs nationally.

The grant funding hopefully will be a springboard for launching a capital campaign for a permanent residence, the Rev. Billington said.

At Hidden Wings, young people have access to programs that include drum circles, ocean kayaking, computer classes, hiking, life skills and yoga.

Two of the Billingtons’ four sons have been diagnosed with autism, and the program sprung from the couple’s concern about a lack of higher education or vocational training for such children.

Molly Ballantine’s 24-year-old son, J.J., is a Hidden Wings student.

“It has been a life saver for him and us in so many ways,” she said. “He’s made friends and enthusiastically looks forward to being a part of every activity offered,” including hiking and kayaking.

She believes it’s important for people to be aware of what the program offers and “how critical the need is for more programs in communities everywhere, as our young children with autism are quickly becoming adults with autism.”

Solvang resident Robb Kennedy, a swimmer and coach, is in charge of the day-to-day operations and outdoor adventures at the school. UCSB acting teacher Annie Torsiglieri instructs the students in her craft. Others teach art, computers or other classes and skills.

One of the main fixtures in the new schoolhouse is the 40-inch diameter drum, which the Rev. Billington uses as a therapy for the students.

The drum was designed and built by drum master Remo Belli, and the Rev. Billington was able to obtain it through his association with Mickey Hart, the former drummer for the Grateful Dead.

Mr. Hart created a program to use drums and other music primarily for people with dementia.

“Hidden Wings provides professional music therapy to people suffering from autism,” he said in a statement. “This extraordinary program helps to prepare children and adults to navigate the world. Rhythm is about life and life is about rhythm. By using drums as a therapy to finding the inner music of autism, Hidden Wings has become a leader in the field.”

The Rev. Billington is hopeful that, now that Hidden Wings is located in the busy downtown of Solvang, people will begin noticing the students and work accomplished there.

“The advantage of having it downtown, they get to be part of the real world,” he said. “Expression, communication, are all improved the more interaction you have with this small town. It’s also a safe haven. It’s really more like a home.”